By Father John Bayer
Special to The Texas Catholic
I once had the privilege of accompanying a woman as she peacefully passed away in the arms and words of her husband, children and grandchildren. It is impossible to measure these things, but I am tempted to say this was so far the deepest and most precious experience of my priestly ministry, if not my life. The total release of life into the hands of God — death — is a mystery capable of being lived in a profound and transforming way, both by the one passing as well as by those whose love unites them to him or her. I know I learned many important lessons from this intimate experience.
During her final days, as the family sat around her bed or called from out of town, it was clear that words are important in both life and death. Words of love, understanding, sympathy, forgiveness, blessing, teaching and encouragement — so many people wanted to say so many things. Among the most moving words were those spoken by a husband of 60 years to his dying wife, along with the tear-filled expressions of children and grandchildren, grateful for every gesture of love shared over a lifetime. The courage to speak, to reconcile, to reach out and unite with someone in the twilight of life — this is, I believe, one of the greatest gifts we can give each other and ourselves.
Naturally, there were times when no one knew what to say, or when what was said felt silly or wrong. For this truthful woman did not want to die in false words, even if they were well-intentioned. So, she was dismissive of attempts to canonize her on her death bed, and both she and her husband seemed unmoved by seemingly pious certainties stemming from the religious Gnostics hiding in us all — Job’s misguided friends, or those who rush anxiously to assertions about God and the universe without taking seriously the mysteries of sin, suffering and death. She did not respond to, and at times even seemed to refuse, words such as, “You are going to get your wings” or “You never failed us” – in the face of death, she seemed to find much more security stepping into the humble, honest words of the repentant thief, read to her by a son-in-law whose tears gave power to every syllable of “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Lk 23:42).
“Have I lived well? Will God forgive my sins? Will death hurt? Are my loved ones in heaven?” Where do meaning and strength come from when the last fig leaf hiding our mortality falls away and our physical, emotional and even spiritual frailties are exposed? Death is when such questions reach their highest pitch, like a fire alarm that will not be ignored. Those whose reason glimpses the Absolute upholding all that is relative – those whose mind in some measure reaches to the Creator palming every atom and tear – have the advantage of insight when approaching death. For there is peace in the knowledge of the One who made all things, and that the One who “neither slumbers nor sleeps” (Ps 121:4) can preserve, if he wills, all that passes in and out of history. For such souls, the tender words of Scripture are the greatest consolation. Read the Word of God to the dying – especially the psalms, gospels and timely passages from the prophets and epistles. In my experience, whenever Scripture or the ritual prayers of commendation were read as this woman lay dying, the whole room stood still. She who had been incapable of finding a comfortable position at last lay peacefully, breathing weakly but steadily; those who had been sobbing stilled to a gentle, mindful pace; and those who desperately wanted to speak but did not know what to say were unburdened, as in the word “Amen” they gave expression to all they wished to say.
I look forward to drawing many more lessons from this holy experience. But the one that captures me today is the power of living and dying with words, and especially with the Word of God. This woman passed away as her husband held her, renewing his love again and again in her ears. And during her final pang, the last verses of Psalm 91 were being prayed aloud. May she forever rest in peace.
Father John Bayer, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving. His column appears occasionally in The Texas Catholic.